“I Swear To Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth, or May the Forest Guardians Destroy Me”

by Roger Alford

My former student, Jeff Cook, who is currently serving as a postgraduate legal fellow with International Justice Mission in Phnom Penh, has a humorous post about litigation in Cambodia. Here is what Cook says is the common practice for witnesses swearing to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”:

It didn’t take long for me to realize that Cambodian justice has a unique character to it. For example, witnesses called to testify in court are informed: “Should anyone answer untruthfully about what they know, have seen, have heard, and remember, may all the guardian angels, forest guardians, Yeay Tep and powerful sacred spirits utterly and without mercy destroy them, and bestow upon them a miserable and violent death by means of bullets, electricity, lightning, tiger bites, and snake strikes, and in their future reincarnation separate them from their parents, siblings, children, and grandchildren, impoverish them, and subject them to miseries for 500 reincarnations.” In case that isn’t a sufficient deterrent, witnesses must then swear, “I will answer only the truth, in accordance with what I have personally seen, heard, know, and remember. If I answer falsely on any issue, may all the guardian angels, forest guardians and powerful sacred spirits destroy me, may my material possessions be destroyed, and may I die a miserable and violent death. But, if I answer truthfully, may the sacred spirits assist me in having abundant material possessions and living in peace and happiness along with my family and relatives forever, in all my reincarnations.”


2 Responses

  1. And why do “we” swear upon the Bible?: no doubt one if not fully conscious reason is to remind witnesses that there are consequences for not telling the truth, consequences of a metaphysical sort, including the ultimate threat of Hell for the damned after the Day of Judgment. At least in the above case miserable reincarnations or rebirths can come to an end such that no one is ultimately fated to eternal damnation. If this be humor, I think it’s rather patronizing: Look how ignorant, superstitious and silly the natives can be!

  2. At first I thought this was a post about the precautionary principle.

    As to Patrick’s objection, I thought that the humor might lie in the incredible detail and specificity of the consequences.  Happily, these appear to vary by circumstance or perhaps by translation.  One site suggests that the oath is even adaptive to individual circumstances (“If I am home, let fire destroy my house for 800 reincarnations; if I am in a boat, let it sink for 800 reincarnations; when I become a ghost, let me eat bloody pus, or swim in boiling chili oil for 800 reincarnations.“).
    Or: if I am in a faculty office, let me grade 800 bluebooks.

    FWIW, Sihanouk was at one point justifying his refusal to testify in part based on the indignity of swearing an additional oath before the ECCC.  After a while, fatigue probably does set in.

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